Great Lakes governors may differ politically but when it comes to invasive carp, they’re in agreement: The fish pose a threat to the region’s economy and environment; the proposed $858 million Brandon Road Ecosystem Project, designed to fortify defenses at a key pinch point on the Des Plaines River, is critical to stopping the carp’s advance; and none of them can afford to pay for it.
All eight members of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, recently signed onto a letter that states as much, and asks the federal government to step into the funding breach.
“The Great Lakes are the engine of a $6 trillion regional economy,” the letter said. “Invasive carp ... could devastate the ecosystem ... and prove detrimental to ... recreational tourism as well as reducing property values. The completion of this project is therefore a national priority.”
Ultimately, the project will entail the installation of additional barriers at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet. An electric barrier, acoustic deterrent, air bubble curtain and a flushing lock in a newly engineered channel are among the technologies to be deployed.
But the cost for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the Brandon Road defense “is beyond the capacity of the Great Lakes states to match,” the letter continued. “Therefore, we request that United States federal government address this project” and support full federal funding.
The note was sent to ranking members of Congress serving on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure as they take up debate on the 2022 Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
The act, passed in 2014, authorizes funding for projects put forward by the Army Corps, specifically improvements to rivers and harbors. The process tends to repeat every two years.
The Corps of Engineers already has an estimated $100 billion construction backlog, on top of authorized but unfunded investigations and operation and maintenance activities, according to the Congressional Research Service.
To help clear the backlog, Congress expanded opportunities for non-federal partners to help push projects forward. In the case of the Brandon Road project, Pritzker and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced in early 2021 that they would team up to fund a portion of the pre-construction engineering and design phase, to the tune of $10.5 million. (Michigan is contributing $8 million and Illinois, $2.5 million.)
In their joint letter, however, the governor’s council made it clear they’ve coughed up all the cash they can and are requesting treatment “consistent with how other large-scale projects have been funded that similarly have a strong bearing on the regional and national economy.”
Invasive carp — bighead, silver and black carp are the species of greatest concern — were imported to the U.S. in the 1970s to help clean retention ponds. Through flooding and accidental releases, they escaped into the Mississippi River and have since made their way into the Illinois River, which is their gateway to the Great Lakes courtesy of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
The carp are voracious feeders, capable of weighing up to 100 pounds and consuming one-third of their body weight daily. They not only outcompete native fish for food, but also can alter the underwater environment so that it’s uninhabitable for plants and other animals.
With completion of the Brandon Road project still more than a decade away, current defenses will be relied on to halt the carp, including electric barriers near Romeoville and expanded nonstructural measures such as focused commercial fishing.